A Soviet artilleryman blown up at Kursk

A familiar sight on the Kursk battlefield, both sides took enormous losses in tanks.

A familiar sight on the Kursk battlefield, both sides took enormous losses in tanks.

The enormous clash of arms that was the Battle of Kursk continued. Nikolai Litvin was a Soviet artillery officer. He was concealed in positions in the Rye fields. Once again it was a question of holding out until the last moment:

The morning of 6 July dawned cloudy, with a low overcast sky that hindered the operations of our air force. Around 6:00 A.M., our position was attacked head-on by a group of approximately 200 sub-machine gunners and four German tanks, most likely PzKw IVs. The tanks led the way, followed closely by the infantry The Germans were attempting to find a weak spot in our lines.

The Germans advanced across the uncut rye field directly toward our firing positions, but they didn’t seem to see us. We felt a gnawing fear in the pit of our bellies as the German tanks rumbled toward us, stopping every fifty to seventy meters to scan our lines and fire a round.

In the general din of battle, we practically could not hear the German shells exploding, but we could see the shells streaking through the air in the direction of our positions. The shells flew harmlessly over our heads, as the Germans hadn’t yet spotted us and were targeting likely positions behind us.

My knees and legs began to tremble wildly, until we received the command to swing into action and prepared to fire. The shaking stopped, and we became possessed by the overriding desire not to miss our targets.

When the Germans had reached within approximately 300 meters of us, we opened fire at the tanks. Our Number One gun set a tank ablaze with its first shot, and then managed to knock out a second tank. The combined fire of our Number Three and Number Four guns knocked out a third German tank. The fourth tank managed to escape.

Since my gun had no tanks in its zone of fire, we opened up on the advancing infantry with fragmentation shells. The German submachine gunners stubbornly continued to push forward. As they drew closer, we switched to shrapnel shells and resumed fire on them. Not less than half the Germans fell to the ground, and the remaining drew back to their line of departure.

As we watched the Germans fall back and the one German tank continued to burn, we wanted to leap for joy and shout “Urrah!” at the top of our lungs; such was our happiness at our success.

After we had repulsed this German probe, the sergeant major brought us breakfast, and 100 grams of vodka each to celebrate our victory. We began to eat “American soup” — a puree of peas and chicken meat. As we ate, we didn’t particularly notice that the sky was clearing, and that both air forces were beginning to operate.

About 10:00 A.M., a flight of ten Ju-87 “Stukas” suddenly appeared overhead. We called them “Musicians,” because of the sound of their air sirens as they dove. These Stukas seemed to have no identied targets but dove upon our lines, and each one released four 50kg bombs.

We took cover, but not a single bomb struck one of our gun pits or bunkers, and there were no losses in our battery. Within thirty minutes, another flight of “Musicians” appeared and began a new bombing run. This time, they seemed to have located our battery’s position, and the first bombs exploded fifty to seventy meters ahead of our guns.

The last plane dove directly upon our battery and released its bomb load. One of the bombs flew directly at my dugout. I saw my own unavoidable death approaching, but I could do nothing to save myself: there was not enough time. It would take me five to six seconds to reach a different shelter, but the bomb had been released close to the ground, and needed only one or two seconds to reach the earth – and me.

During these brief seconds as I watched the bomb fall, my entire conscious life flashed through my mind. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. I badly didn’t want to die at the age of twenty. I had a fleeting thought to ask God to spare my life, but then I remembered that I was a Komsomol member, and therefore I couldn’t make such a request.

Just before the bomb struck, I rolled over face-down in my little trench and covered my face with the palms of my hands. As I was turning my face away, I caught a glimpse of a narrow dust storm, about twelve meters high, moving in my direction.

Just as I completed the turn, I heard the bomb explode. There was a repulsive smell of TNT, and I felt two strong blows to my head. It seemed to me that my head must have been torn off. The thought flickered, “How painless it is to die!”.

The bomb had exploded very close to my trench, and I was buried in loose dirt. Battery commander Bondarev and some of my comrades frantically dug me out of the earth once the bombing ended. They dragged me out up to my waist and thought that I was dead.

They gently raised my head, let it go, and my head dropped back down. I was unconscious. They tried to rouse me three or four times. Then someone gave me a good shake, and I regained consciousness. When I woke up, I remembered the sensation that my head had been torn off and I thought: “Enough. I’m alive.”

Nikolai Litvin: 800 Days on the Eastern Front: A Russian Soldier Remembers World War II

As well as a clash of tanks, Kursk also saw an enormous air battle as the Soviet air force at last started to meet the Luftwaffe on equal terms.

As well as a clash of tanks, Kursk also saw an enormous air battle as the Soviet air force at last started to meet the Luftwaffe on equal terms.

Contemporary footage of Soviet artillery:

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: